State’s Liability for Flooding Damages from Construction Activities Construed

October 6, 2008 | Erin Herbold

Iowa has specific rules governing the drainage of surface water. But, is the state subject to those same rules? That question was addressed in this case. In the Spring of 1999, a rural community in north central Iowa experienced heavy rainfall (nearly 7 inches in two days) resulting in flooding which damaged several properties. Several years later, the Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) constructed a four-lane, divided-highway bypassing the town. The bypass crossed a stream and the bridge installed over the stream was designed to withstand a fifty-year flood. 

The landowners whose property was damaged by the flood sued IDOT, claiming that the bypass design prevented water from escaping under the highway as it did before the construction. The landowners also claimed that the design did not comply with engineering standards, the construction resulted in an “unnatural” amount of water flowing through the creek, and that the bypass acted as a dam which changed the natural course of water flow. The trial court dismissed the landowners’ claims, on the basis that the state has immunity from permanent damages for devaluation of property caused by design and construction. 

The landowners appealed and the Iowa Court of Appeals focused on whether the State had the discretion to make decisions regarding the bypass and, if so, whether the state had the ability to exercise the discretion. The court reasoned that the state could exercise their judgment or discretion in the design and construction of the bypass. During the design and construction phase, the DOT asked for and received public comment.  The court concluded that the state, in their discretion, engaged in considerable planning and consideration of several issues in the design and construction of the bypass, not just flooding. Therefore, the court concluded that this case was properly dismissed because the state was protected by “discretionary function immunity.” Schneider v. State of Iowa, No. 8-316/07-0887 (Iowa Ct. App. Oct. 1, 2008).